Of Mice and Men and Sherry


A glass of sherry w/ladder awaits the mice of Gonzalez Byass /Photo Michelle Locke
A glass of sherry w/ladder awaits the mice of Gonzalez Byass /Photo Michelle Locke
“The best laid plans o’ mice and men,” wrote the poet Robert Burns, “gang aft agley,” which is Scots for “get totally FUBAR.”*

But Burns evidently never visited the Gonzalez Byass winery in Jerez de la Frontera.

GB, makers of the popular Tio Pepe fino, or dry, sherry, have a fantastic cellar at their headquarters in Jerez that, among other things, includes a glass of sherry left out daily for the winery mice. There’s even a tiny ladder propped against the side to make it easier for the mice imbibers to get a little nip. The story is that years ago one of the workers, toiling alone all day, made friends with the field mice that occasionally skitter about the sandy floor and decided to lend a helping hand.

I visited the cellar as part of my recent trip to Jerez and the Rioja hosted by GB and found the cellar one of the most interesting I’ve seen. Beyond the mouse glass there are a number of barrels that have been autographed by famous visitors ranging from Winston Churchill to Cole Porter. (Oddly enough, they did not ask me to sign. Probably didn’t want to make the rest of the group feel awkward.)

Another high point is the room full of huge barrels named after the 12 apostles. The apostles flank a truly gargantuan barrel that was made for the occasion of a royal visit. The big barrel holds about 33 butts of wine (3,600 gallons), and therefore was nicknamed after Christ who died at age 33. The apostles were brought in as natural companions. I was surprised to find “Judas” stuck in a corner, you would have thought he would have been apostle non grata, but it was explained to me that the barrel was actually named after the other, non-silver-pieces-betraying guy. known in English as Jude.

Tio Pepe, named after the founder’s “Uncle Joe,” was the first registered trademark in Spain and that’s not the only first associated with the winery, which dates back to the 1830s. A grandson of the founder, Manuel Maria Gonzalez Gordon, Marquis of Bonanza, wrote the book Jerez-Xerez-Sherry, still considered a guide, and was the first manufacturer in Spain to install electricity in his plant. (Far thinking Jerez and Haro in the Rioja were the first Spanish cities to have electricity.)

Also, Marquis de Bonanza? I’m completely jealous of that name. And I say that as someone who is legally Mrs. Ho.

Waiter, there's a mouse in my glass! /GB photo
Waiter, there’s a mouse in my glass! /GB photo

*FUBAR=A military expression, Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. Although usually not using the word “fouled.”

A Toast to Gay Marriage

rainbow-wedding-cake__fullLooking for just the right wine to toast the recent court victories bolstering gay marriage?

Here’s a story I wrote earlier this month about some wineries that have come out in support of gay marriage by putting that message right on the bottle — and backing it up with donations from sales of the wine.

To recap, the wines I found were:

Same-Sex Meritage based in Northern California and cutely named since “meritage” means a Bordeaux-style blend and sounds a lot like marriage. For each bottle sold, $1 goes to the advocacy group Freedom to Marry.

Egalite, a bubbly from the Burgundy region of France. Each quarter, a portion of profits is donated to a LGBT nonprofit organization chosen by fans of the wine on Facebook; $15,000 has been donated since the wine’s January launch.

Genetic Pinot Noir, which refers to sexual orientation having genetic origins. Stand Tall Wines was founded by Larisa Stephenson and partner Dana Sabin. The wine is being made in the Napa Valley using grapes shipped from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and 1 percent of Genetic sales is being donated to the Napa LGBTQ Connection.

Barefoot Wine & Bubbly, this one was a surprise to me, but it turns out Barefoot has been supporting marriage rights for gays for 25 years, donating to local LGBT centers and other organizations, investing in Pride Week events, even putting up a 20-foot-tall inflatable wedding cake in front of San Francisco’s City Hall to show support for gay marriage.

All this talk about marriage has got me thinking about my own wedding to Mr. Vinecdote, which took place 28 years ago this month. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday in North Texas. Just us and the local Justice of the Peace, a Texas official who can perform marriages. She met us at the courthouse on the way to get her usual Sunday papers (ah, those were the days, children) and it was cool having the whole building to ourselves, our footsteps echoing down the empty halls. Afterwards we went to Carrows and had the two-egg breakfast special. Because that is how we roll.

An additional note. The judge was a friend of ours, a fabulous woman named Arthur Bea Williams who was the first black JP to serve in that county. She had just been elected which worked out well for us because the previous guy refused to perform mixed-race marriages, a problem for my Caucasian self and Chinese-born spouse.

Change. Sometimes it really is for the better.

Cheers, romantically.

Chez Panisse Reopens

Alice Waters
Alice Waters reopens Chez Panisse after fire damage /Photo Michelle Locke

I’m happy to report that Chez Panisse is all fixed up from the fire damage in March and opened this week.

I interviewed chef Alice Waters a few days before the opening and had a great time talking to her about the recovery. As always, she was totally zen about the whole thing and saw it as an opportunity for renewal rather than as a big giant pain. Don’t you just hate people like that? I kid.

Here’s a link to a story I wrote for AP about the reopening:

BERKELEY, CALIF. — Posing for a photograph in front of the refurbished front porch of her Chez Panisse restaurant, chef Alice Waters smiles as a passer-by calls out, “Looking good!”

It’s true. They do look good – both the chef with the sparkling blue eyes who helped ignite America’s interest in fresh, local food and the restaurant, all spruced up after damage from a fire this March.

This was the second fire to hit Chez Panisse in its 42-year history, coming almost exactly 31 years after a serious fire in 1982. Luckily, the toll this time was much less severe with sprinklers keeping the flames from spreading and damage mainly confined to the two-story front porch seating areas.

And if you’re looking for self-pity over this latest setback, you won’t find it at Alice’s restaurant.

“Whenever there is fire, new things happen. New things sprout up like in the forest. It’s just a moment to really reflect on what to do,” says Waters. “Everything seems to happen for a reason, it just sort of woke us all up.”



Vintage Downton Abbey


DowntonAbbey1OK, now here’s a celebrity wine I may not be able to resist.

Wines that Rock, a company that makes wine under the names of rock groups including the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, is coming out with blends inspired by the ultra-fabulous Downton Abbey TV series. According to a story in The Drinks Business, the wine is being made with the French company Dulong Grand Vins de Bordeaux.

“Dulong has been in the same family for five generations and has over 130 years of experience, so these are wines the Crawley family would have been proud to serve at Downton,” Bill Zysblat, co-owner of Wines That Rock, told DB.

Wine has been a big part of the British series, from the dastardly (but I confess, I have a soft spot for him anyway) footman Thomas nicking wine from the cellar and then trying to blame it on Bates, to butler Mr. Carson’s painstaking stewardship of the wine service at dinner.

Here is Anna, the maid who recently became Mrs. Bates but only after a great deal of drama, giving pairing advice to a nervous Mr. Mosley when he has to serve as stand-in sommelier.

“Mr. Carson likes to serve two white wines, which you should open and decant just before they eat. A light one for the hors d’oeuvres, then a heavy one with the soup. Keep that going for the fish, and then change to the Claret, which you should really decant now. There’s a pudding wine, and after that whatever they want in the drawing room with their coffee.”

Four wines at dinner and a little something extra in the drawing room after? It’s no wonder the ruling class came a cropper. They must have spent half their time sloshed and the other half nursing right royal hangovers.

And speaking of things that can leave you feeling woozy in the morning, here is the funniest mashup ever, put together by The Colbert Report and featuring the Abbey boys in the world of the gritty TV series Breaking Bad. NSFW, at least not without headphones, because of foul language, albeit foul language delivered in a charmingly upper-crusty fashion. Skip to 1:45 if you don’t want to watch Colbert’s intro.

Cheers, classily.

No Cannes ‘Do’


GatsbyThe ancient Greeks dreamed up the concept of dramatic irony to highlight the rift between perception and reality. But friends, let me tell you the true* definition of ironic: I was turned away from the Hunger Games:Catching Fire party at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was actually hungry.

I know what you’re thinking. How could this happen to someone in possession of a prized pink access badge? The answer’s pretty simple. By day, the Cannes Film Festival is a grown-up affair with artists and other creative types showcasing their work to an audience of thousands of journalists and marketing professionals. But once night falls it’s straight down the rabbit hole to high school. Only with more expensive clothes and less Clearasil.

Just as in 9th grade when you couldn’t sit at the cool kids table without the OK from someone, usually a girl with much nicer hair than you, you can’t get into the hot Cannes parties without getting approval from a Lady of the List, usually a girl with much nicer hair, etc.

Which is why I found myself standing in the rain at 10 o’clock at night, watching the wind whip the palm trees along the Cannes waterfront and trying to take photos of the beautiful people from afar.

“It’s a lovely night isn’t it?” said my companion, that international journalist of renown known to us as the Trained Observer. “Very fresh.”

I brushed a gallon or so of water off my shoulders. “Very fresh,” I said bitterly.

We inched our way up the line and finally reached the checkpoint. “Is my name written there?/On the page white and fair,” I hummed softly to myself. But very softly, California humor does not play well in La Belle France.

(Speaking of Gallic giggles, they showed a Jerry Lewis film as part of the Cannes Classics series. The Ladies Man. Inside joke?)

It probably will come as no surprise that I was summarily rejected from the Catching Fire party.

Oh, cruel fate. I could smell the salty tang of fried finger foods and could almost hear the clink of cocktail artists at work. Meanwhile, the wind decided to take it up a notch from stiff sea gale to young typhoon, lashing the rain sideways.

Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink, as the old sailor put it when his buds decided to give him the bird.

But just when I thought the evening was going to be as jolly as Oedipus’s honeymoon, hope dawned. We took a short stroll down the street and found ourselves at another bash. The Trained Observer was on the list, I was not, but with a firm, “Elle est avec moi ,” in we went.

Ah, sweet victory! The lights, the dryness, the music, the young men carrying trays of nourishment, and, dearest of all, the open bar.

Two gin and tonics later I looked around at the well-dressed crowd, some talking to each other listlessly, restless eyes raking the crowd for signs of more important people to shmooze, some ignoring the party altogether and staring obsessively at their smart phones.

“Trained Observer,” I said, “Some of these folks don’t seem that excited to have been on The List.”

“I know,” said the Trained Observer. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

Cheers, classically.

*Not actually the definition of irony.

Cannes police aim to Catch a Thief


Paging Robie the cat.

Yes, it’s true. A burglar or burglars swooped into a Cannes hotel room this week and made off with $1 million in jewels.

If life had been imitating art more faithfully, the heist would have taken place at the Carlton Hotel, setting for a number of the scenes in Hitchcock’s Riviera caper, To Catch a Thief.

Instead, the theft took place at the more modest Novotel.

The jewelry belonged to the Swiss watch and jewelry company, Chopard, and was in Cannes to be loaned to stars appearing at the film festival. The gems were being kept in a wall safe in the hotel room of a Chopard employee, according to police, but thieves short-circuited that measure by simply ripping the safe out of the wall.

The investigation continues.

I’m guessing it’s very unlikely the heist will involve anyone who looks like Cary Grant, or Grace Kelly for that matter. But there is one Hollywood touch. The theft follows the Thursday premiere at the festival of The Bling Ring, the movie that follows a ring of teens addicted to the five-finger discount,

Cheers, criminally,

Terror on the cycling trail


Barreling down the rutted, stony track, my heart in my mouth, another part of my anatomy bouncing up and down on a bicycle seat from the spring line of Torquemada Sporting Goods, I couldn’t help asking myself: Why, Michelle, why?

It had begun as such a modest proposal. Would I like to bicycle through vineyards in Rioja? Well, certainly, I would. Perhaps I could have remembered that I ride a bike about once a year, and then not very well, but one doesn’t want to be a wet blanket when visiting one of the world’s great wine regions. Besides, I had visions of spinning lazily along a quiet country lane on one of those bikes that look like La-Z-Boys on wheels.

As it turned out I was outfitted with something a tad more rugged. Naturally, the first thing I did was gouge my left calf on the pedal or gears or some sticky-outy thing,

“You’re bleeding,” pointed out another member of the group, and indeed I was which held us up a bit as our kindly leader found some gauze and antiseptic and mopped me up.

But what do a pint or two of blood amount to? Plenty more where that came from so off we pedaled through the narrow streets of the town of Haro — sunbaked sandstone buildings nestled into folds of green — and out into the countryside.

There was a slight hitch as I tried to figure out the gears which theoretically could be changed by pushing a lever with one’s thumb while pedaling. In practice, one’s thumb had to be a lot stronger than mine so I decided whatever gear the bike was in was the gear the cycling gods wanted me to be in.

Note to self: I don’t think the cycling gods like me all that much.

“It won’t be hilly will it?” I asked. No, there’s just one hill was the reply. Which was technically true, but only because the entire ride was ONE, LONG, DAMNED HILL.

Note to cycling gods: The feeling is mutual.

And that, friends, is how I ended up flying down the aforementioned track, mountain* biking for the first time at the ripe old age of … ripe.

Spanish words I learned: collina (hill), coche (car), peligro (danger), sangre (blood).

English words I taught: censored, censored, whoa, really censored,

How was it? A blast. I mostly walked up the hills and occasionally walked down them when my nerve gave out, but it was still a beautiful way to enjoy a beautiful area.

The scenery was fantastic, vines highlighted with bright green spring leaves and long vistas of darker green fields set against snowcapped mountains. And the stop at a picnic table loaded with salty, fatty snacks and chilled white and rosado Beronia wines (my host for the trip) was quite delightful.

So, if you happen to be in Haro, I would highly recommend checking out a bike tour. Just limber up that thumb and don’t omit the sunscreen.

Oh, and here’s a bonus vocabulary word that may come in handy post-ride: cojin. That would be Spanish for cushion.

Cheers, sportily.

*OK, if you want to be all literal about it, it was more like moderate slope biking, but why ruin a good story with facts?


What: Ojasport
Where: Linares Rivas 44, Haro, Es. Tel. 34 607449650 www.facebook.com/turismoactivojasport


Seeing London by the Book

Looking for a novel approach to England’s capitol? Why not take a tour of literary London.

A good place to start is the newly refurbished Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty St., once the home of the prolific author. If you’ve got the time, you nip around the corner to the The Foundling Museum which combines some works of art with a detailed history of what happened to destitute mothers and their babies in Victorian England. Dickens not only championed the cause of the poor and downtrodden in his books, he worked with the hospital to improve the lives of the real-life children as well. One of the exhibits is a copy of his essay, “Received, a Blank Child,” (blank was the space where officials would fill in male or female).

From the Dickens museum, head south on Doughty St. and turn left on Roger St. to get to Gray’s Inn Rd., which takes you past the Gray’s Inn law offices where Dickens once clerked.  Continuing past the offices you can turn left on Holborn, which becomes Newgate Street, and then turn left on Old Bailey, site of the infamous Newgate Prison, which was destroyed at the turn of the 19th century and now home to the Central Criminal Court.

Stay south on Old Bailey and you will run into Ludgate Hill, turn left and you’re in Fleet Street, once the heart of the newspaper business. Turn right and you’re headed for St. Paul’s Cathedral, featured in a number of Dickens books includingDavid Copperfield. Hit St. Paul’s at 5 p.m. and you can sit and listen to the beautiful evensong service for free. (But you can’t make the sightseeing rounds; that’s for non-worshipping hours and costs money.)

Staying on Ludgate Hill, which becomes Cannon St., takes you to King William St. Turn right and you’re on London Bridge, where Nancy met with Mr. Brownlow to conspire for Oliver’s safety. In the 1968 movie, “Oliver!” Nancy was killed on the bridge steps by the brutal Bill Sykes. In the book, she’s killed at home. Fair warning, this isn’t the London Bridge of Dicken’s time. To find that you’ll have to go to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., where it was relocated, piece by piece, more than 40 years ago. The bridge that currently spans the Thames is from ye ancient 1973.

Once you’ve crossed the bridge, look for the George Inn on your left. This is one of the many, many pubs that Dickens is said to have visited and is mentioned in “Little Dorrit.” This building, the last remaining galleried coaching inn in London, is a replacement, too, built after a fire destroyed the previous inn. But not to worry, history buffs. It’s new as in, built in 1676.

I won’t lie. The meat pie and beer that I had at the George were OK but not  gastronomically memorable. But sitting at an old wooden table in the room where Dickens and co. once had coffee and talked over the news of the day? Unforgettable.


Chez Panisse fire: UPDATE

cp_14th_bdayThe reopening date for Chez Panisse has been postponed following the discovery that damage was more substantial than thought.

Fire broke out at the famous Berkeley restaurant early in the morning of March 8 but thanks to the automatic sprinkler system, much of the damage was contained to the exterior.

Founder and chef Alice Waters had hoped to reopen at least the upstairs cafe quite soon but the San Francisco Chronicle reports that is going to take longer than was initially estimated. There was significant damage to the front _ an elegant wooden facade _ side and underneath the building, which used to be a house.

On Tuesday, Waters tweeted: “We are hard at work! Thanks to all for your beautiful support–check here for the latest: http://tinyurl.com/y87cboj 

The last fire at the restaurant happened almost exactly 31 years ago, on March 7, 1982. That fire was caused by a stove ember that ignited cooking coals. Cause of this fire is still under investigation.